The Alabama special election to fill the Senate seat left vacant following Jeff Sessions’ appointment to U.S. Attorney General resulted in a sizable blow to the Republican establishment and Mitch McConnell. On August 15th the three main Republican contenders, Sen. Luther Strange, Roy Moore, and Rep. Mo Brooks, faced off in a crowded Republican primary. No candidate reached the 50% vote threshold, so the top-two vote getters, Moore and Strange, will compete in a run-off election to be conducted on September 26th. Roy Moore, the anti-establishment, former Alabama Supreme Court judge beat Senate incumbent Luther Strange 38.9% to 32.8%, a margin of 25,553 votes.
Despite making the run-off, the defeat of Luther Strange is another blow to the agenda of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who endorsed Strange and whose closely associated super-PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), provided him with millions of dollars of support. The support of the Republican Party establishment gave Strange a major financial edge. Strange spent $1.4M, and benefited from an additional $2.8M in support from the Senate Leadership Fund and other independent groups. This gave him a massive advertising advantage over his rivals Moore and Brooks, who spent merely $291k and $857k on advertising respectively. Strange and the SLF ran three different ads attacking Brooks for being “Never Trump,” which totaled $442k over the course of the primary. Mo Brooks responded by running $332k of ads calling Sen. Strange a “liar” and Mitch McConnell’s “lap dog.” As Strange and Brooks traded blows, the anti-establishment evangelical Roy Moore entered the race.
Moore is something of a controversial figure, who has twice been removed from the Alabama Supreme Court. Once, in 2003 for refusing to remove a depiction of the Ten Commandments, and following his reelection, again in 2016 for refusing to follow a Federal court order on gay marriage. However, these incidents have only served to bolster Moore’s reputation as a man of conviction in this deeply religious state. This left Moore uniquely positioned to attack Strange as being a tool for the Republican establishment, while his popularity in the state shielded him from the kind of attacks that helped sink Brooks’ campaign. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Moore is the candidate whose anti-establishment profile most resembles that of President Trump, who is hugely popular in Alabama. Strange and his allies failed to find a line of attack against Moore, running only one ad against him in the primary. This ad, totaling $137k, accused Moore of financial impropriety relating to his charity.
While Moore did not reach the 50% threshold to avoid a run-off, he ran an amazingly efficient campaign. His statewide cost per vote was a mere $1.77, compared to the $30.24 per vote paid by Strange and the SLF, and $10.29 paid by Brooks. This efficiency allowed him to spend a relative pittance, and still finish higher than fundraising powerhouse, Luther Strange.
Looking to the Run-off
The runoff, however, will challenge Moore. Though Strange and SLF spent huge amounts, it was largely directed at Mo Brooks. It remains to be seen if Moore can weather similar large-scale, sustained attacks given that Strange has already placed $421k of spending for the run-off. Only 38% of Strange and the SLF’s attack ads were directed at Moore in the primary, in the run-off he will bear the full brunt of Strange’s financial muscle. Additionally, Strange, somewhat unexpectedly, received the endorsement of Trump the week before the primary. While his endorsement did not push Strange ahead of Moore in the primary, a campaign visit to the state, or a month of robocalls featuring the President’s voice could swing voters in Strange’s direction. However, while Strange has Trump’s endorsement, Moore has the outsider, anti-establishment credentials that resonated so strongly with many of Trump’s supporters in 2016. It will be revealed on September 26th whether the people of Alabama will support the candidate endorsed by the President himself, or the one who most closely embodies the President’s anti-establishment message.